Basil Biggs and the Railroad to Freedom

You step softly through weeds and fallen leaves, the night pitch except for the stars above. Each crunch of your steps makes you wonder if you will alert the tracking dogs or townspeople who may not be friendly to your trip. Your traveling companion has assured you that you are safe with him, that he knows the route well, that he knows places to hide if anyone trails you, that he has friends who can make legal problems go away. The scars of your life experiences cause you to be paranoid, make you think that this little fellow is a big talker. But you must rely on him wholly–without him, you are hopelessly lost. For now, he is using an unfinished railroad cut to lead you from west to east, and he has promised you that you will soon turn north and put distance between you and the southern slave catchers. You cannot know it at the time, but you are in the hands of one of the most reliable, dedicated conductors on the Underground Railroad: you are being guided by Gettysburg’s Basil Biggs.

Born free in Carroll County, Maryland, Basil Biggs knew something of bondage–his mother died when he was just four years old, which left him to be bonded out for service. This meant that a local town farm or almshouse would contract with a local family to take in young Basil and put him to work. Though not officially a slave, Basil’s youth and skin color no doubt made him exceptionally vulnerable to abuses more commonly found among enslaved persons. Little is known of Basil’s young life except that he learned a great deal about animal husbandry, and he was a proficient wagon driver. He was known to treat animals as a veterinarian in both Maryland and Gettysburg.

In the 1840s, he married Mary Jackson, also of Maryland. Maryland prevented black people–free or enslaved–from being educated, so Basil and Mary moved just across the Mason-Dixon line to Gettysburg where they took up tenant farming. Here, they intended to raise their children to read, write, and get an overall education. Various sources place Basil as a farmer and veterinarian on Edward McPherson’s property, Lydia Leister’s property, or John Crawford’s property, though the McPherson farm is cited most frequently.

Basil was known to be active in the Underground Railroad, and he almost certainly had wide-ranging support in town. Edward McPherson was known to work for Thaddeus Stevens, an attorney and later member of the US House of Representatives. Stevens was also a prominent landholder in and around Gettysburg and was known to muse about taking action against renters or delinquent mortgage holders who gave voice to opposition to the Underground Railroad.

Basil’s best known drop point was with Edward and Annie Mathews who lived at the Yellow Hill settlement in Biglersville eleven miles to the north. Some researchers believe that Basil and Edward brothers-in-law from their time in Maryland. Yellow Hill was primarily an African American settlement, and the Mathews were able to conceal many runaways before conducting them further north on a pathway that frequently ended in Canada.

When news of the Confederate incursion into Pennsylvania reached Gettysburg, most of the two hundred black residents sought ways out of town, and Mary took their family and fled shortly after June 15. To keep an eye out on their property, Basil hung around as long as possible and didn’t depart until around the time of the Confederate arrival on June 26. When the Biggs family returned after the battle, almost everything of material value had been destroyed, and most of their farm animals had been carted off. Further, they found forty-five Confederate graves on their property. Basil and Mary appealed to the government for restitution in later years but received only a paltry sum given that much of the damage had been caused by the Confederate army.

Basil and his family remained intricately connected with the battle and its aftermath. When David Wills set aside a portion of Evergreen Cemetery for the new National Cemetery, Basil secured work in exhuming the Union fallen and reinterring them in the new cemetery. Basil’s wagon could hold nine caskets at a time, making him perhaps the most efficient carrier in town. In all, Basil is thought to have helped exhume and reinter more than three thousand Union fallen.

This work of memorialization, though, would not cease with his work on the National Cemetery. In the post-war years, Biggs worked with USCT veterans who were barred from burial in national cemeteries. Together, they created the Lincoln Cemetery, also known as the Goodwill Cemetery.

When Basil finally passed away in 1906, he was lauded in the Gettysburg newspapers for his contributions in the community and for his work on the Underground Railroad. He left behind five children and seventeen grandchildren.

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